Non-dairy milks (also known as plant-based or vegan milks) have exploded in popularity over the past five years. This popularity only continues to grow as Americans explore vegan alternatives to dairy in an attempt to improve their health, lessen their environmental impact, or both.
While non-dairy milks of the past struggled to stand up to dairy milks in terms of foam texture, taste and suitability as a canvas for latte art, modern non-dairy milk options offer enormous variety and textural and taste quality that rivals that of dairy milks.
Here’s a rundown on the most popular non-dairy milks, their benefits and the applications they work best for in a coffee shop.
Almond milk has overtaken soy milk’s popularity in recent years, and is currently the market leader. Its wide product recognition and delicate flavor make it a universally popular non-dairy milk choice. It’s not, however, nut-free or allergen-free.
Oat milk’s popularity is gaining on almond milk’s, with sales growing 50% between 2017 and 2018. It’s predicted to be the market leader within a few years. It couples the same relatively neutral flavor as almond milk with the additional benefit of being allergen-free and nut-free.
Soy milk was the OG, the original dairy alternative. It’s still the best-known plant milk around the world although its popularity has waned in comparison with almond and oat milk. Like oat milk, it’s nut-free.
Coconut milk boasts wide product recognition, but, because of its strong flavor, is used almost exclusively in cold drinks. It doesn’t have the same application flexibility that almond, oat and soy milk do.
Best Non-Dairy Milk for Coffee Drinks: Flavor
Almond milk adds a warm, nutty dimension to any brew. The flavor is noticeably not that of dairy, but it's complementary to coffee and not exceptionally strong.
Oat milk, according to many baristas, has the most neutral flavor of all non-dairy milks and doesn’t overpower coffee. Many drinkers say its consistency is thicker and creamier than oat or almond milk and reminds them more of cow's milk than other dairy alternatives.
Soy milk can be divisive. Some people say soy is a great, neutral-flavored milk that can work well with specialty coffee. Others report that it tastes like cardboard. But generally, soy milk’s nutty flavor can complement coffees with a darker, toasty flavor. On the other hand, we do find that it clashes with fruitier beans.
Coconut milk's coconut flavor is relatively subtle and complementary to sweet drinks and vanilla bases. It works well in many non-coffee drinks. However, it doesn’t particularly complement coffee flavors. (You won’t find “coconut” on the Specialty Coffee Association's flavor wheel.)
Best Non-Dairy Milk for Steaming
Steaming Almond Milk
Almond milk can curdle in acidic coffees or when there is a large temperature difference between the coffee and milk. It’s also very sensitive to being overheated or oversteamed, a mistake which will result in less-than-stellar foam and latte art. But when heated to the right temperature, it can work wonderfully for a wide variety of coffee drinks. A warning, though: sometimes using almond milk can result in a layer of wateriness under the foam on a latte.
Steaming Soy Milk
Like almond milk, soy milk can curdle in acidic coffee or when it’s added cold to hot coffee. It’s also sensitive to being overheated and steamed. However, when a barista takes care to heat soy milk to the right temperature, treating it with skill and care, it can work wonderfully for foam and latte art. Like almond milk, it can sometimes leave a layer of wateriness under the foam on a latte.
Steaming Oat Milk
Oat milk’s steaming capabilities are similar to dairy milk’s. There’s a slight learning curve for the barista using it, but in general it performs incredibly well for latte art. It has another benefit too: it won’t curdle when added cold to a hot drink.
Steaming Coconut Milk
Coconut milk steams and foams well, but, as we noted above, it’s rarely used in traditional or unsweetened coffee drinks due to its flavor profile.
Best Non-Dairy Milk for Latte Art
Barista Series Non-Dairy Milk
When beautiful latte art is a goal, we strongly recommend using Barista Series non-dairy milks. Barista series non-dairy milks are available from multiple brands, including Pacific, Califia and Milkadamia. Almond, oat, soy and coconut milk are all available in Barista Series editions, and using them is the trick that will allow you to achieve a beautiful non-dairy latte topped with silky foam and an elegant design.
Barista Series Non-Dairy Milk vs. Regular Non-Dairy Milk
People often ask us if they need to use Barista Series non-dairy milks. The answer is, yes, you do! If you use regular soy, almond or oat milk, nothing beyond a temperature change will happen when you heat the milk. Its texture won’t change or become silky and creamy because the sugars won’t get evenly distributed throughout the milk. This creates cracked, lumpy-looking lattes that leave a filmy coating on customers' teeth. (Kind of gross.)
How Barista Series Non-Dairy Milks Work
Barista Series non-dairy milks, on the other hand, contain a natural, flavorless emulsifier (usually canola oil or xanthan gum), that keep them from separating and enables a real, effective steaming and distribution of the milk sugars. The result is those coveted tiny, silky bubbles that blend beautifully with coffee and give a latte artist a chance to present a beautiful drink to customers.
Need help choosing non-dairy milks for your coffee shop?
Our beverage experts can provide you with all the knowledge you need to pick the right non-dairy milks your restaurant or cafe. At Intermix, we offer Pacific Foods Barista Series (soy milk, almond milk and oat milk) and Califia Farms Barista Series (almond milk and oat milk) among other brands.
Both brands steam exceptionally well. Their flavor profiles are of course a bit different, so we often do blind taste tests with customers to determine their favorite. Contact us to schedule a taste test (we're located in Minneapolis, Minnesota) or get more information about our non-dairy milks selection.